Why your brain may sleep without even knowing it

People with insomnia will often tell you that they haven’t slept a wink, even after you’ve just heard them snore. Recent research validates their experience and explains why this phenomenon occurs. The findings were published in the journal Sleep.

I’ve spent the majority of my life surrounded by insomniacs.

My mother and grandmother both had insomnia— a fact that, according to some studies, might put me at risk — and my long-term partner had the condition, too.

I found myself caring for these people who were dear to me, and while I empathized deeply with their condition, at times, I would get slightly frustrated with them.

For instance, I can remember times when my partner’s eyes were shut, his breathing was deep and regular, and he’d occasionally let out a snoring sound.

I’d think to myself, “Thank God he’s finally sleeping” — only to be told the next morning that he “did not get a wink of sleep.”

“So what was that about?” I’d ask myself. Was this a classic case of an “imaginary invalid,” or was I misunderstanding insomnia?

Apparently, the experience of sleeping without even knowing it is not uncommon among those with the condition. Scientists have identified the phenomenon and, although they did not fully understand it, labeled it “sleep misperception.”

New research, however, delves deeper into the mystery of sleep misperception and may have found an explanation for it.

According to study leader Daniel Kay — a psychology professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT — the reason behind why scientists have been missing out on the explanation for this phenomenon is that, traditionally, sleep is understood as a categorical experience: you’re either asleep or you’re not, and when you’re asleep, you cannot be conscious.

But Prof. Kay doesn’t believe that this is “necessarily true.” He says, “I think you can be consciously aware and your brain [can] be in a sleep pattern. The question is: what role does conscious awareness have in our definition of sleep?”

Consciousness brain areas are key

To answer this intriguing question, Prof. Kay and team analyzed the sleep patterns and experiences of 32 people with insomnia and those of 30 participants who did not have the condition.

Using polysomnography — a traditional sleep studying method — the scientists examined the brain wave patterns of the participants. Once the researchers were able to detect, based on these brain waves, when the participants were asleep, they injected a radioactive tracer in their arms.

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